In a case study report released Wednesday on an October 2006 hazardous waste fire at a North Carolina facility, the U.S. Chemical Safety Board (CSB) called for a new national fire code for hazardous waste facilities and for better information provided to community emergency planners about the chemicals at those facilities, according to a CSB press release.
The fire and ensuing explosions occurred at night at the Environmental Quality Company (EQ) hazardous waste transfer facility in Apex, N.C. The facility, which was not staffed or monitored after hours, was destroyed and about 30 people, including one firefighter and 12 police officers, required medical evaluation at local hospitals. No EQ employees were present at the time of the fire, the press release said.
Emergency responders did not have access to specific information on the hazardous chemicals stored at the site and ordered the precautionary evacuation of thousands of Apex residents, the press release said.
The CSB investigation found that a small fire originated in the facility's oxidizer storage bay, one of six storage bays where different wastes were stored and prepared for transfer off-site to treatment and disposal facilities. Within the oxidizer bay were a number of chemical oxygen generators, which had been removed from aircraft during routine maintenance off-site, however they had not been safely activated and discharged before entering the waste stream. Solid chlorine-based pool chemicals were stacked on top of the box containing still functional oxygen generators, the CSB press release said.
According to the CSB, a small “sofa-size” fire spread quickly, most likely as the aircraft oxygen generators discharged and accelerated the blaze. The facility lacked fire walls and automatic fire suppression systems, and the fire spread into other bays where flammables, corrosives, laboratory wastes, paints and pesticides were stored.
Hazardous waste facilities like EQ's are regulated under the federal Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA). The CSB investigation noted that RCRA regulations developed by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) require facilities to have “fire control equipment” but do not specify what equipment and systems should be in place. In addition, there is no national fire code to define good fire protection practices for hazardous waste facilities, according to the CSB press release.
The CSB report (2007-01-I-NC) recommended the EPA require that permitted hazardous waste facilities periodically provide specific, written information to state and local response officials on the type, approximate quantities and location of hazardous materials, the press release said.
The board called on the Environmental Technology Council, a trade association representing about 80 percent of the U.S. hazardous waste industry, to develop standardized guidance on waste handling and storage to prevent releases and fires.
The CSB also recommended that the council petition the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) to develop a specific fire protection standard for the hazardous waste industry. The new standard should address fire prevention, detection, control and suppression. Similar NFPA standards already exist for other industries, such as wastewater treatment, the press release said.
The CSB also Wednesday released a new 16-minute CSB safety video, titled “Emergency in Apex - Hazardous Waste Fire and Community Evacuation,” available on free DVDs and on the agency's video Web site, Safetyvideos.gov.